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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update February 21, 2015

Morning, Noon and Night

Edvard Grieg in 1888.

One of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons shows the illustrious rabbit attempting to conduct an orchestra, but thwarted in his attempt largely by a bothersome fly.  The music was the overture Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna by Franz von Suppé.  He was a successful Austrian composer of light operas whose parents, perhaps in a moment of sheer madness, had christened him Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Cavaliere di Suppé-Demelli.  Understandably, he abbreviated this elephantine name at the earliest opportunity.  Over the years his operas and operettas have fallen into obscurity, but his colourful overtures seem to have survived.

There are many pieces of classical music that were evidently inspired by a particular time of day, and having nothing much to do recently I started to make a list of them.  As it turned out, most of the works I could recall were actually about evening or night rather than the daytime.  There’s that lovely piece by Delius, Summer Night on the River and the sumptuously harmonic Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg.  Then there’s Khachaturian’s nocturne from the Masquerade Suite and of course all those other nocturnes by Chopin, Fauré, Liszt and the Irish composer John Field who actually invented the genre.  

Two other well-known nocturnal pieces are Manuel de Falla’s brilliant Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, known by alternative English titles depending on how the Russian is translated.

You can probably think of others, but I’ve chosen three pieces on the “times of day” theme, one of which is extremely well-known, another a little bit less so and a third which is hardly known in Europe, let alone Asia. 

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): Morning Mood from Peer Gynt Suite No 1. Limburg Symphony Orchestra cond. Otto Tausk (Duration 03:54, Video 720p HD)

Edvard Grieg provided the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play of the same name, which describes the adventures and dubious exploits during the life of Peer Gynt.  About twenty years later Grieg extracted various sections of the music to create two suites each of four movements, though why he waited so long is anyone’s guess.  Morning Mood is the first movement of the first suite, and many people assume that it depicts Peer Gynt gazing heroically over some Nordic landscape.  In fact, it comes from the fourth act of the play, when the sun rises to reveal our eponymous hero up a tree in Morocco, protecting himself from a horde of grunting apes.  The theme has acquired international fame through its use in films and television programmes.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Orchestra Dell'accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia cond. Leonard Bernstein (Duration: 11:59, Video: 480p)

This evocative symphonic poem was written in 1894 and was inspired by a poem of the same name by the Parisian poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé.  It was one of the most significant musical works of its time, consisting of a complex organization of musical cells and motifs.  It’s not actually descriptive in the usual sense of the word but it uses rich whole-tone harmonies, daring orchestration and to contemporary audiences must have sounded very modern indeed.

Leonard Bernstein wrote that the work “stretched the limits of tonality” and in so doing, set the harmonic stage for the atonal music of the century to come.  In this film, Bernstein conducts the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, one of the best-known orchestras in Italy.

Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez (1899-1940) Noche de Encantamiento. Orchestre de Paris cond. Kristjan Järvi (Duration: 13:15, Video: 720p HD) 

This piece could hardly be more different from Grieg’s gentle evocation of sunrise.  Revueltas is considered one of the most significant composers of twentieth-century Mexican music.  He used dissonance freely and his works have a rhythmic vitality and raw energy.  He once wrote, “My rhythms are booming, dynamic, tactile and visual”.

Although Revueltas wrote chamber music, songs and a number of other works, his best-known composition is the score for the 1939 Mexican film La Noche de los Mayas (“The Night of the Mayas”).  Like Grieg, Revueltas decided to create an orchestral suite from the dramatic music but he died before even starting it.  The donkey work was taken up by his younger compatriot José Ives Limantour and the reworking of the original film score preserves the composer’s native Mexican rhythms.  It also calls for a selection of native Mexican instruments including the caracol, guiro, huehuetl, sonajas, tumbadora and the tumkul.

The work is symphonic in design and cast in four movements with this one, “Night of Enchantment” being the last.  You’ll need a good sound system or high quality headphones to fully appreciate this thrilling and relentlessly percussive music.  Needless to say, it’s real blood-and-guts stuff and not for wimps or those of a delicate disposition.

Update February 12, 2015

Poles apart

Karol Szymanowski.

I suppose when most people think of Polish classical music, they think of Chopin or polonaises.  The polonaise of course is a dance – one of the country’s five national dances, though it’s actually the French word for “Polish”. 

Apart from Chopin, you might be hard-pressed to think of any other nineteenth century Polish composers.  Henryk Wieniawski springs to mind, because he wrote many works for violin and his Second Violin Concerto remains popular.  Then there was Moszkowski, who was a big name in the late nineteenth century, best known for his piano music.  We mustn’t forget Paderewski either, who was a world-class pianist in his time and had the distinction of being Poland’s Prime Minister for just ten months.  He achieved sufficient musical fame to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. 

But this brings us well into the twentieth century, when Poland produced a crop of composers who have achieved international recognition.  In 1992, a recording of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki (goo-RETS-kee) topped the classical charts in Britain and the United States selling more than a million copies. 

The most influential twentieth century Polish composers include Karol Szymanowski, Leopold Godowsky, Andrzej Panufnik, Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki.  The last name (pronounced, usually with difficulty as KZHISH-toff pen-der-ETS-kee) may be more familiar because his highly personal and sometimes downright scary music was used in several movies, notably The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980).  One of his most influential works is the musically-challenging Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, which was used in the movie Children of Men (2006).

The two works this week are in total contrast, the first stylistically rooted in the closing years of the nineteenth century, the second firmly in the twentieth.  They’re as different as chalk and slupski chłopczyk.

Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937): Etude in B flat minor Op. 4, No. 3. Moniuszko School of Music Symphony Orchestra, cond. Andrzej Kucybala (Duration 06:12, Video 720p HD)

Etudes, the French name for studies, were usually written for piano and emerged during the early nineteenth century as the instrument was growing popularity.  They were originally short exercises intended to develop a particular instrumental technique.  Most pianists have been obliged to struggle through the studies of Clementi and Czerny but two composers, Chopin in Poland and Liszt in Hungary raised the étude to a high art form.  Szymanowski (shih-ma-NOFF-skee) composed his four études for piano between 1900 and 1902 when he was still influenced by German romantic music of the late nineteenth century.

He wrote a staggering quantity of music including several concertos and four symphonies.  After hearing the third symphony, his younger compatriot, the composer Witold Lutosławski remarked that he felt “quite dizzy for a number of weeks”.  The third étude is slow and lyrical and has become the most popular of the set.  It was performed by leading pianists of the time and brought the composer considerable fame, especially after it was orchestrated by the Polish composer and conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg.  The piece has rich confident harmonies and a lovely nostalgic melody which draws the music to a dramatic climax (at 03:50) before the tension begins to subside towards its reflective conclusion.  You’ll probably notice some quite dissonant harmonies towards the end; a hint perhaps of Szymanowski’s more mature musical style.

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994): Concerto for Orchestra. National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain cond. Edward Gardner (Duration: 28:05, Video 720p HD)

Witold Lutosławski (VEE-tolt loo-to-SWAHF-skee) is considered one of the great voices of Polish twentieth century music, although he was relatively unknown outside the country until the 1960s.  His early work shows the influence of Polish folk music although his first symphony was banned during the Stalinist era on the grounds that it was too “formalist”.  This was a favourite term by the censorship authorities of the day and referred to the half-baked political notion that music should be simple and accessible to the masses.

Lutosławski used an approachable, more tonal style for his popular Concerto for Orchestra which dates from the early fifties.  The work opens with a reminder of Brahms’ First Symphony and there’s plenty of percussive pounding and dissonance, but also moments of opulent harmony with tantalising fragments of folk-song.  It’s brilliantly scored for a huge orchestra with a large percussion section as well as a celesta, a piano and three harps, though for some reason this performance uses four. 

By the end of the 1950s the state loosened its grip on artistic creativity and Lutoslawski was free to explore more challenging approaches to composition.  Towards the end of his life, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour.  And in case you’re still wondering, słupski chlopczyk is a kind of Polish cheese.  I didn’t make the name up.  Honestly.

Update February 5, 2015

Merrie Melodies

The Glinka monument in Teatralnaya Square, St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo: Alex Florstein)

Some years ago, when I was involved in the gentle art of music education, I once became intensely irritated on hearing a well-meaning but ill-informed teacher talking to her class about “happy sounds” and “sad sounds”.  She was trying to explain the difference between the intervals of the major third and the minor third, claiming that the first sounded happy and the second sounded sad.  Of course, all this is complete and total nonsense and with as much tact and diplomacy as I could muster, I told her so.  Now maybe you are not into this technical stuff, but it’s very easy for me to prove my point by using a piano.  At least, it would have been if I had remembered to bring one with me.

It was unfortunate that the teacher was feeding the children the hopelessly naïve idea that music is either “happy” or “sad”.  There are countless other shades of meaning and emotion between and outside these simplistic notions.  Some music can be so full of radiant joy and elation that it makes your spirits soar and you find yourself weeping.  Now why is that, I wonder?  Well, my knowledge of psychology is such that I’d prefer to leave that for you to ponder.  You may recall that Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, “Where words fail, music speaks”.

I mention all this because the other day I found an article in which someone had listed examples of “music that makes you happy” or some such inane title.  Perhaps this kind of thing is so subjective as to render such list-making rather pointless.  In any case, I’d guess that peoples’ reaction to a piece of music is informed, consciously or otherwise by their frames of reference.  But let’s not get too technical, for it’s the weekend after all.

Even so, I can think of many pieces that uplift the spirits and brighten the day.  Perhaps they even evoke a sense of merriment - for at least part of the time.  Most composers know that unrelenting jollity – or unrelenting melancholy for that matter – can become wearisome.  In Gustav Holst’s piece Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity the jovial mood eventually gives way to one of his noblest melodies.  Dvorák’s effervescent Carnival Overture, which was also listed, includes a beautiful middle section of almost heart-breaking nostalgia.  And talking of overtures, here are three that might lift your spirits too.  They’re all somewhat similar in structure, with vivacious opening themes contrasted with slower more reflective melodies.

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857): Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, cond. Valery Gergiev (Duration 04:33, Video 1440p HD)

This is a sizzling overture, which I first came across at the age of about fourteen.  It’s remarkable that the music sounds so modern for something written in 1840.  Glinka was the father of Russian classical music and although he was a prolific composer, he’s known in the West for only a handful of works.  He’s highly regarded in Russia where three music conservatories are named after him.

Conductor Valery Gergiev takes the overture at a fair old lick, revealing the competence of this superb Russian orchestra.  For some reason, he appears to be conducting with the aid of a toothpick.

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987): Overture to Colas Breugnon. New England Conservatory Philharmonia cond. Andrew Litton (Duration: 05:42, Video: 1080p HD)

This was the first piece I heard through a pair of stereo headphones when I was about twenty-two.  It sounded wonderful at the time and still sounds as fresh as ever.

As a child, Kabalevsky was deeply interested in the arts and was an accomplished pianist, also dabbling in poetry and painting.  He became a prolific composer of piano music, much admired by Vladimir Horowitz.  Like Glinka, little of his work is known in the West with the exception perhaps of the Third Piano Concerto.  The three-act opera Colas Breugnon was written between 1936 and 1938 and based on a novel by Romain Rolland.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Overture to Candide. London Symphony Orchestra cond. Bernstein (Duration: 04:41, Video: 480p)

Perhaps best known for his opera West Side Story, Bernstein was also an author, music lecturer, and brilliant pianist.  Music critic Donal Henahan, claimed that Bernstein was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.”  His operetta Candide was first performed in 1956 and based on the novella of the same name by Voltaire, written almost exactly two hundred years earlier. 

The overture is a lively and engaging work with a catchy opening theme which gives way (at 01:21) to a passionate melody that recurs triumphantly later in the work.  The exciting coda which begins at 03.23 makes a satisfying conclusion to this heart-warming overture.  An added bonus is that when he’s conducting, Bernstein is always entertaining to watch.

Update February 1, 2015

Forgotten Voices

Vienna in the 1750s. (Bernardo Bellotto, 1758)

Right, let’s start with a test.  I’ll give you a list of composers and we’ll see how many names you recognise.  Here it is: Adalbert Gyrowetz, Johannes Matthias Sperger, Dmitry Bortniansky, Leopold Kozeluch, Etienne Ozi, Justin Heinrich Knecht, Artemy Vedel and Johann Georg Lickl.  Ring any bells?  Unless you have a special interest in music of the late eighteenth century, their names are possibly meaningless.  But don’t feel inadequate, because few professional musicians today have ever heard of them.

The composers in the list were born between the years 1750 and 1770 and were therefore contemporaries of Mozart.  Wikipedia lists nearly two hundred other composers who were born during the same twenty years but there were probably many more.

They may seem an obscure bunch today, but in their time they were celebrities in the musical world.  Take the curiously-named Adalbert Gyrowetz for example.  He spent much of his time travelling around Europe and wrote over thirty operas, sixty string quartets, sixty symphonies and about forty piano trios.  He was born in the Czech city of Budìjovice, also known as Budweis and famous for Budweiser Bier which has been brewed there since the thirteenth century.  Adalbert may well have had a few swigs of the amber nectar to encourage his creative flow.

Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808): Oberon Overture. The New Dutch Academy, cond. Simon Murphy (Duration: 05:26 Video: 720p)

You don’t hear much about Wranitzky these days either.  He was born in the same year as Mozart and like Adalbert Gyrowetz, hailed from what is now the Czech Republic.  Like many other Bohemian musicians of the time, he moved to Vienna which was then the most important cultural centre in Europe. 

Wranitzky was a composer and conductor and highly respected by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.  He was Beethoven’s favourite conductor and gave the premier of the first symphony in 1800.  He was a prolific composer too and churned out forty-four symphonies, sixty or seventy string quartets and a couple of dozen operas and ballets.  This might seem a disproportionate amount of self-inflicted hard labour, but there was an enormous demand for new music in Vienna and other cities.  Unlike today, there was little interest in music written by long-dead composers.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the French musicologist François-Joseph Fétis wrote, “The music of Wranitzky was in fashion when it was new, because of his natural melodies and brilliant style.  I recall that in my youth, his works held up very well in comparison with those of Haydn.”

Oberon was of course the mythological King of the Fairies.  Perhaps he still is.  He was the subject of several operas, most notably the one written by Weber in 1826.  This tuneful overture to Wranitzky’s opera is played on authentic historical instruments by an excellent baroque orchestra based in The Hague.

Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812): Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Fabián Orozco (vla), Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela cond. Pablo Morales (Duration: 20:20 Video: 480p)

Hoffmeister was born two years before Mozart, and by the 1780s he’d become one of Vienna’s most popular and highly respected composers.  He wrote at least eight operas, over fifty symphonies and a large number of concertos.  He also established one of Vienna’s first music publishing houses, and published not only his own works but also those of many other major composers of the time, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Clementi, Albrechtsberger and Dittersdorf.  These people were also among Hoffmeister’s personal friends and in one letter Beethoven evidently addressed him as “my most beloved brother”.

Hoffmeister wrote a great deal of music for the flute, presumably with Vienna’s growing number of amateur musicians in mind.  The flute was one of the most popular instruments.

This concerto is one of Hoffmeister’s best-known works and one of the few that are still played.  It was written in 1799 and cast in three movements which was the convention at the time.  It’s scored for a modest orchestra of two oboes, two horns and strings.  In those days, the symphony orchestra was only just beginning to emerge.  There were strings of course and sometimes a couple of horns or a pair of flutes or oboes, but nothing like the standard woodwind and brass sections that are common today.  Composers simply wrote for whatever instruments a particular orchestra happened to have.

This performance features an advanced student of the Escuela de Música Mozarteum in Caracas.  Fabián Orozco gives an accomplished account of this joyful concerto which reflects the classical ideals of contrast, well-structured melodies, transparent textures and a sense of light elegance.  The lyrical slow movement is an absolute delight.

The music of many lesser-known composers can be found on YouTube but listening to this concerto, I can’t help wondering how many hundreds of other forgotten voices are still waiting to be rediscovered.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Morning, Noon and Night

Poles apart

Merrie Melodies

Forgotten Voices